Manitoba government coping with pandemic as best it can, Stefanson says
In year-end interview, premier says she'll listen, let others decide fate of statues toppled on Canada Day
COVID-19 cases are spiking, hospitals are running out of capacity and new restrictions are cancelling holiday plans — but Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says her government has done the best it can to respond to the pandemic.
"I think we did what we did at the time, just based on the information that we had," she said during a year-end interview with CBC, in response to a question about whether her government could have acted more quickly to respond to the pandemic's fourth wave, which has pushed Manitoba's critical-care system to the brink.
"But you always sort of look back and say, 'Could I have done things better? What have we learned from this and how can we move forward?'
"I think we're learning every day and certainly I'm learning every day in this new role and in past roles."
During the interview, Stefanson defended her government's pandemic response, warned of a growing surgery backlog and questioned the effectiveness of supervised consumption sites.
'Nobody has a playbook'
Asked if she had any regrets, Stefanson said she's dealt with challenging moments. She brought up her tenure as health minister earlier in the year, overseeing a third pandemic wave during which 57 hospital patients were sent out of province for care.
"Should we have shut things down earlier? Did we shut things down too much?" Stefanson said.
"These are the things sometimes you think back at. Could I have done things better at that time? You do second-guess yourself, but I think it's important for us to just remember that we're in the middle of a pandemic and nobody has a playbook when it comes to this."
WATCH | Province doing the best it can, premier says:
The long-time Tuxedo MLA won last fall's Progressive Conservative leadership race and was sworn in as premier in early November, taking over from Brian Pallister, whose popularity collapsed in his final months in office.
With the benefit of hindsight, Stefanson said the government could have potentially handled some pandemic decisions better, but she did not specify any decision she would do over.
That puts her at odds with the medical professionals who say they warned the Progressive Conservative government to boost the capacity of the health-care system well in advance of the fourth wave.
The premier said she's learned to take advice from other jurisdictions on coping with the pandemic.
That led Manitoba to take, in her words, "very swift action" last Friday to announce new pandemic restrictions before the highly transmissible Omicron variant was spreading widely in the province.
In addition to those measures, Manitoba cancelled additional elective surgeries this week. Doctors Manitoba recently estimated a swelling waiting list of more than 152,000 surgical and diagnostic procedures, including more than 56,000 surgeries.
Stefanson suggested those waiting will soon have more company, as the province braces for more COVID-19 hospitalizations.
"We get [Manitobans] through the pandemic, then we can look at starting to tackle the surgical backlog," she said.
- Manitoba task force will look at sending some patients out of province to address surgical, diagnostic backlog
"Right now, they're looking at triage and what that looks like to ensure they get the more emergent cases dealt with first, which is what's happening all across the country."
A task force will come up with recommendations to address the backlog. Stefanson promised to spend the money to fix it.
"We are prepared to do what it takes to get Manitobans through this," she said.
WATCH | Acknowledge mistakes and move on, Stefanson says:
Stefanson has approached governance in a more conciliatory approach than Pallister, the opinionated, sometimes brash premier she's tried to distance herself from.
She's said repeatedly she seeks the opinion of others, and has been seen at events with Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand, neither of whom got along with Pallister.
Her efforts to chart a new path have kept her busy enough that she hasn't spoken with Pallister since becoming premier, she said.
"To be honest, I've just been on the ground running" to ensure that caucus is working together to get Manitoba through the pandemic, the premier said.
She said she's leaving some decisions to others, including the fate of two statues toppled on Canada Day by protesters at the end of a rally held to remember Indigenous children who died at residential schools.
Pallister vowed to rebuild the monuments to British monarchs. Stefanson, though, says what matters isn't her personal preference, but what Manitobans want.
A government committee is exploring options, while consulting with Indigenous peoples, she said.
WATCH | Not about my 'personal preference' on statues' future:
Meanwhile, Stefanson's political opponents have tried to characterize her government as no different than Pallister's.
Like him, she isn't willing to support a supervised consumption site, where people with addictions can obtain clean needles and have street drugs checked for the presence of harmful chemicals.
Skeptical on supervised consumption sites
"If you look at some of the results of other jurisdictions, I don't think they're necessarily as good as what we're doing here" with options such as rapid access to addictions medicine (RAAM) clinics, Stefanson said. The Tory government opened the first of the walk-in addiction clinics, which have limited hours, in 2018.
"It's not an ideological thing for me — it's about results."
The premier's office was asked to provide evidence supporting Stefanson's claim, but its response did not provide that.
- Supervised consumption sites can operate in Winnipeg, with or without provincial approval: Deputy CAO
For now, Stefanson's government hasn't immediately won over the Manitobans who lost trust in the PCs. She got booed at the Blue Bombers Grey Cup celebration event last week.
"I was expecting that," she said. "People don't like politicians in general."
While recent polling suggests the Opposition NDP still enjoy more support than her party, Stefanson said she isn't worried.
"[It's been] seven weeks, you know," since she became leader, she noted. "Give us a little time."
There's no doubt there's work to do, she said.
"But we're committed to doing that."
WATCH | Year-end interview with Premier Heather Stefanson: